The book opens in Paris with a description of the hotel and neighborhood where Orwell is lodging. The overall impression is of filth and hunger and a quietly endured, never-ending desperation for Paris’s poor. Though the wealthy do feature in this book, they are like ghosts, flitting in and out of the narrative, but ultimately are not anything that Orwell can interact with or relate to on a meaningful level.A one-time English tutor, Orwell has found himself without a job and low on funds. Work in Paris is scarce, particularly for a foreigner, so he begins to economize by cutting out essentials like wine and cigarettes and then, inevitably, food. His good clothes are soon pawned, along with the suitcase they were packed in, but the money he gets buys bread and butter for no more than a few days. Desperately searching for any kind of work, he seeks out and finds an old friend, Boris, an enormously fat Russian who at one point was a waiter. Boris, however, is also out of work, practically starving, and almost dying of illness and hunger when Orwell finds him. Somewhat rejuvenated by seeing his friend again, Boris insists the pair will soon find work. A dozen weeks (and many bouts of hunger, fatigue, and desperation) later, the two finally do land jobs at a hotel restaurant—Boris as a waiter, and Orwell as a plongeur, or dishwasher.But no ordinary dishwasher. The work of a plongeur is physically and spiritually exhausting—fourteen hours a day of frantic cleaning, scrubbing, and sweeping in the sweltering heat of a basement kitchen. And it’s at this point in the story that one telling characteristic becomes painfully apparent. Unlike other young men’s autobiographies, Orwell’s Down and Out gives no mention—ever—of love, desire, or even the pursuit thereof. His entire life has three main objectives: struggling through the workday, eating something, and grabbing a few hours of sleep before the travail starts again.Despite the toil, Orwell is not at all miserable, and he has to be goaded by Boris into quitting the job at the hotel for a position as plongeur at a new restaurant for which the Russian will be the maitre d’, quite a step up from waiter. The new kitchen, though, is even more cramped and, in contrast to the professional working conditions of the hotel, abysmally filthy. He has to work eighteen to twenty hours a day to keep up and gets less money for it. Demoralized, Orwell decides to return to London.
In the first part of the book, the experience of poverty is related in claustrophobic, prison-like terms: Paris’s working poor seem geographically chained, moving only from their rented rooms to their jobs to their favorite bistros and back again. But in the second part of the book, Orwell describes London’s poor as predominantly mobile, forced to wander from shelter to shelter across London and the countryside or risk arrest.
Soon after he arrives in London, Orwell becomes one of those itinerant poor, though he by no means had intended to do so. Before he finalized his plans to return, he had been offered employment as a babysitter for a wealthy family. But the family, much to Orwell’s misfortune, decided to vacation just before he arrived, leaving him out of work—and out of money—for at least a month. He borrowed a few pounds and, as he did in Paris, pawned his best suit. Not used to leaving on the cheap in London, he spends his money too quickly by renting beds at overpriced inns. Very quickly, then, he has to join the other homeless in London, wandering between a series of “spikes,” or shelters. Though the shelters are free, no one can stay more than one night, and the food served at them is meager, just barely fit for human consumption. While Orwell is on the road between shelters, hunger and filth are constant companions, as is the sting of being considered contemptible by the majority of society.
The book ends just after Orwell arranges a final loan. His employers will be returning in eight days, so with only a little over a week to endure being destitute, he says goodbye to his tramping comrades, who will remain on the road, presumably for the rest of their lives. Orwell closes with some spectacularly pithy observations on poverty, and the reader is left with the resounding impression that it’s a condition—a situation, Orwell would insist—best avoided if at all possible.